Les Centre de Trois Pignons

by Mary Anne Ducharme

Centre de Trois Pignons, painted in the bright colors of the Acadian flag, can°t be missed if you are in Cheticamp on your way to the Cabot Trail. This museum complex tells the story of the Acadians in the area, features the world-famous tapestries of Elizabeth LeFort, has information on Acadian genealogy, and is the place where you can find a wealth of travel information.

This French-speaking village which hugs the majestic western coast of Cape Breton is steeped in Acadian history, including the infamous Expulsion which is the subject of Evangeline, the poem by Longfellow.The region is far too interesting to pass by. You will want to stay longer! than you might have planned! Les Trois Pignons, an Acadian cultural centre at the north end of Cheticamp, was built in the style of Louis XIV French architecture, and it officially opened in 1978 as part of a renaissance of Acadian culture. The complex includes a tourist information centre, an archives, a collection of Acadian books, a popular community radio station, and a genealogy centre.
The genealogy department is staffed with volunteers, particularly Edmund Burns who spends a great deal of his time responding to queries coming to the facility on the World Wide Web. Les Centre de Trois Pignons, explained curator Beatrice Deveaux, features two major collections; one is the hooked tapestries by Cheticamp women; and the second is a collection of artifacts from the late Marguerite Gallant who was a colorful and beloved eccentric of Cheticamp.

Beatrice explains that rug hooking, with utilitarian origins, was a way of keeping one's feet warmer in the cold of winter, and they also added artistic color and charm to a home. They were not sold until pedlars made their appearance in the 1920's and women discovered that they could be bartered for other useful items - these items, however, were far below the true value of the rugs themselves. The rugs were snapped up quickly by the pedlars who resold them at great profit to themselves. In 1927, New York artist Lillian Burke, a friend to the Alexander Graham Bell family, introduced improvements to techniques and materials that made the rugs hugely popular with tourists, and she sold them in great quantities for a commission. As women came to realize the commercial value for their work they began branching out on their own, and the craft eventually became an important business in Cheticamp. It has been a major expression of Acadian heritage in this community for more than 70 years.

As the craft of rug hooking developed, certain women began to emerge as exceptional in talent with original designs, techniques, and colors. The traditional floral patterns and colors distinctive to Cheticamp remained a trademark but now appeared wall tapestries of astounding detail in the form of portraits, landscapes, and religious themes that resembled fine oil paintings.

Among these women was Elizabeth LeFort, and the gallery of hooked tapestries bears her name. Her genius with wool transformed a traditional craft into high art that adorns places like the Vatican, the White House, Buckingham Palace and the National Museum of Man in Ottawa. One of her works at Trois Pignons features portraits of the presidents of the United States, thirty-four historical figures, requiring 390 colors and 1,700,00 loops. The tapestry measures 10'3" in length and 6'3" in width. Other works displayed include a sixty square foot tapestry of important events in Canada, which features portraits of the prime ministers. Her religious series includes The Nativity, Calvary, and the Resurrection.

The gallery came about originally through the efforts of Yvon Deveau, then general manager of Trois Pignons, with Annie-Rose Deveaus as its first director. It opened on August 7, 1983, and since then has displayed the most beautiful pieces of Elizabeth°s work as part of its permanent exhibition. "These works," said Beatrice Deveaux, "are absolutely unique and irreplaceable. There is no one likely to attempt these tapestries again. It is incredibly difficult to get a good portrait likeness in hooked yarn, but somehow Elizabeth did it."

Annie-Rose was also a researcher for the book The History of Cheticamp Rugs and their Artisans, published by Societe St. Pierre. This was the first book to document the development and workmanship of rug hooking in Cheticamp.

"In order to understand the Marguerite Gallant collection," explained Beatrice, "you have to know her story." Marguerite was a cousin of Beatrice's grandmother, and was a familiar personality for as long as she can remember. "She was an eccentric in the true sense of that word. She lived in a small house and she collected things. If somebody had something that they didn't want but it was too good to throw away, they brought it to Marguerite and she kept it. Whether it had value or not, it didn't matter. It could be a duck-shaped stone, or an old bottle, or cracked tea pot. She could tell you the history of that object as well as the history of who gave it to her. She dressed oddly, in baggy men's clothing most of the time, or dresses that hadn't been in fashion for thirty years. She liked to walk in the woods, and comb the beaches, she read a lot, and she really loved people. If somebody knocked at her door, she didn't bother to see who it was. Everybody was welcome. ´Come in!° she always said. She started keeping a visitor's book and it is amazing how many people found her - they could be from the Philippines or from South Africa, and they ended up at her door.

"She became a maid at eleven years of age, working for sick people, old people, priests, and for years she worked in Milford Pennsylvania for a Mrs. Cahill. After Mrs. Cahill died, the family told Margaret that she could have anything that she wanted from her house, and Marguerite chose a huge six-leaf table that opens to almost ten feet long. When Marguerite celebrated her birthday, she opened it up for all her guests and it filled her kitchen. This is the table that we have here now. "Marguerite died in 1983, and her entire collection came to us. When we sponsored An Evening with Marguerite, about sixty people came to share stories about her and there was a skit about what Marguerite is doing in heaven.

Beatrice mentioned that in 1985, a tape recording was played of Marguerite's voice. It begins " Go tell my friends that I'll always remember them." It was very touching - as if it was Margaret was there in person. Beatrice further explained that there was more to the museum collection than Marguerite's treasures. There is a wall display of 19th century tools that is highly popular with the men who visit. There is also a large variety of other household items that show the lifestyle of the people of Cheticamp in the last century. These include a spool bed with a straw mattress, an iron cook stove, a cream separator, and a parlour organ. The stereoscope, a means of viewing 3D pictures similar to the modern Viewmaster, is particularly enjoyed by the children.

There have been mysterious articles donated and visitors enjoy speculating about the possible uses and sometimes they come up with the actual identity of the object. One object proved to be a tooth brush holder, and another, resembling a huge pizza cutter, was correctly identified by a visitor as a measuring wheel. It was used to measure barrel staves and curved planking for boats. One of the most mysterious objects in the collection now is a small rectangular bottle with a neck that curves up at a 45 degree angle. For smelling salts?

"It is important for people to see these things, because they are part of who we are here in Cheticamp," said Beatrice. "It's our own story of us. We find that visitors ask a lot of questions about Acadian history and lifestyle, and we can show them things and explain them."